The old ones aren’t the best

Philip Salter
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City A.M.’s cocktail expert @philip_salter


The idea of returning to a golden age – real or imagined – has preoccupied generation after generation. Aping the endeavours of the past has a lot going for it. Just consider the Italian and wider European renaissance, in which geniuses drew upon the neglected accomplishments of ancient Greece and Rome.

When it came to alcohol though, the ancients mixed water with wine, supposedly marking them apart from barbarians. Perhaps, but they were also producing wine that would be undrinkable to the modern palate. The ancients didn’t really get around to cocktails, and across the ages, despite numerous dark ages, there has been no period that can legitimately be described as golden. In fact, if we were looking for a golden age, the present would have the strongest claim for the title.

One golden age bubble that certainly needs popping is that of the prohibition era (1920-1933) in America. Despite the romance associated with its secret speakeasies, it was disastrous in every way imaginable: instilling murderous gangsters with colossal power, destroying established quality alcohol brands, killing people with moonshine and choking off innovations in ingredients and skills. The good bartenders got out – including Harry Craddock, who sheltered thereafter as head barman at The Savoy.

There are reasons that today’s cocktails are some of the best, but one factor that is often neglected is the role of technology. Tony Conigliaro’s 69 Colebrooke Row is widely regarded as one of the finest cocktail bars in London. Drinks: Unravelling the Mysteries and Flavour of Drink, probably the best cocktail book of 2012, sets out the painstaking work behind every drink. Most of the hard work is done away from the bar, in the Drink Factory (Pink Floyd’s old recording studios) where Conigliaro’s team experiments with ingredients using equipment such as the centrifuge and Rotavapor. His cocktails aren’t made à la Tom Cruise in Cocktail – Conigliaro measures in microns (1,000th of a gram).

Many of Conigliaro’s concoctions can’t be easily recreated but this is no reason to get disheartened. You probably can’t move like Carlos Acosta but this shouldn’t stop you dancing. And technology more complex than a shaker, strainer and bar spoon might one day enter the home. For example, the Mansion Bar & Parlour, at Indigo London Kensington, uses the Perlini system – which is one of a growing number of cocktail gadgets available on the market – to carbonate its Negronis.

Much of modern civilisation may be more Leonardo DiCaprio than Leonardo da Vinci, but at least we can console ourselves of this fact with a better cocktail than was available at any other time in the history.

■ 25ml Plymouth gin
■ 25ml Campari
■ 25ml Rosso Antico
■ Orange slice

● Shake all ingredients with ice using the Perlini system ● Strain into an ice-filled old fashioned glass ● Garnish with orange slice.